Saturday, February 14, 2009

Assembly Required

Primer attempt: 25 people, The Repetition: 17 people, Third Time’s a Charm: 29 people. With 183 afiliados the future of Cuajiniquil’s A.D.I. was at best ‘questionable’ but there’s always a silver lining and, although difficult to decipher at times, the situation provided the perfect opportunity for a PCV. One of the major goals of the RCD program is Organizational Development but little emphasis is placed on its importance. This goal stems from the fact that Rural Development Associations don’t function efficiently, effectively, or with transparency and, in turn, this leads to stagnation in poor communities, the status quo of mismanagement becomes sacrosanct. We as PCV’s, with a handful of Spanish, fight to espouse the value of organization, planning, and information sharing; even if it is only with one fist.

The answers to our problem was obvious, a change needed to be made and it needed to be made fast. Without the Asamblea the A.D.I. can’t work (literally and figuratively) and, with a demanding Peace Core Volunteer, doctoring the forms wouldn’t function. 183 personal invitations were made and we set out on foot to deliver every single invite to every single afiliado. Often, I wonder what my community will say once I’m gone and now I can at least be sure that, among all the chismes, I’ll be remember for helping to orchestrate the largest Asamblea in the history of Cuajiniquil, 111 at the Segunda Convocatoria and the final, unofficial, count leveling out around 125 people.

The need to improve the organizational practices of the A.D.I. didn’t stem from 3 failed Asambleas but rather from another focus of PC Tico, Project Design and Management. August ’08 provided the perfect opportunity for what is considered, in the opinion of many, Peace Corps success. Maureen Ballesteros, the diputada for the region of Guanacaste, visited the community and, in a meeting with the Association, granted 5 millones for a project we had been discussing. The money had originally been earmarked for a geological study of the community’s new aqueduct system but through efficient mismanagement scientists weren’t contacted, agreements weren’t drawn up and we were on the brink of losing the money- auspicious beginnings.

The project continued in the haphazard manner that had come to typify the A.D.I. Cuajil: absence of project development meetings, suppression of information, lack of communication, and a time table that can only be described in Spanish- elástico. The irony of the situation was that we were trying to build an Information Center, an office for the A.D.I. that would help to disseminate information about the Development Association while also providing communication between the community and the Junta Directiva. Still, faced with these numerous challenges, we managed to turn the project in by the November 14 deadline, within the timeframe to receive the donation from the diputada and hopefully receive additional support from DINADECO.

There’s Bad News and then there’s Heartbreak. I’ve often said the Peace Corps is a practice in small successes and devastating failures and here was another example. December ’08, “we’re sorry but your project was rejected by the legal department in San José”. Apparently, the construction of an Information Center wasn’t included in the Plan de Trabajo of the A.D.I. Cuajil and therefore DINADECO, legally, couldn’t provide the funding- the bad news. The heartbreak, “the project would have been approved had it appeared in the Plan de Trabajo” (DINADECO representative). The solution: Convocar la Asamblea, have the project approved by the community, and fax the new Plan de Trabajo to San José. We now come full circle, “How do we approve a new Plan de Trabajo when we tried 3 times and couldn’t get 25% of the afiliados to attend the Asamblea?”.

The unfortunate reality was that if I wanted the project approved by the community and if I wanted to guarantee that this didn’t happen again I was going to have to ‘demand’ that we, the A.D.I., work better and work smarter. Fortunately, over the past 8 months a handful of Spanish had turned into 2 handfuls and I was ready to challenge a group of rough and ready fisherman who didn’t like taking criticism from a 25 year old kid. We held a meeting and after some initial resistance we started to make some progress, we decided on a few small changes in the operations of the Junta, we talked about the community’s criticisms, and we decided to work differently in the future- basically, we started communicating. In the end a small change had taken place, nothing major but a step in a different direction and perhaps a better direction. The fourth attempt at the Asamblea turned out to be a success and we’re now waiting, once again, for project approval (small success).

The challenge with the goal of Organization Development is that it’s not received openly by community groups; no one likes to be told that they should change. Additionally, greater organization, providing more information, and attempting to work efficiently signals more responsibility and that’s a scary thought- for both PCV’s and community members. But without these types of changes communities don’t develop, people don’t develop, and volunteers become frustrated and disillusioned. Teaching Organizational Development is a hard job, it’s awkward, at times it’s scary, there’s no rubric for success, and the value of change often needs to be demonstrated rather than taught; but without this component sustainability is almost impossible. It’s easy to become tired and frustrated in the process, to give up and head to the beach for the weekends or to be overwhelmed by resistance to change, but you have to demonstrate, graciously, that there is a better way to work. And when you’re tired remember… No se afloje el rabo aunque le caga la mano. A la orden. Gte.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The International Credit Crisis

The pundits have weighed in, Henry Paulson has become a household name, and our President Elect faces one of the most challenging situations in recent years... undoubtedly, we are in the middle of an international credit crisis. It may be hard to believe but the first cracks in the foundation weren't on Wall Street, Wasilla Main Street, or the some international cyber-market but rather right here in small town Costa Rica, the fishing village of Cuajiniquil. But what blew the lid off, burst the bubble, tipped the scales, caused this crisis to erupt (insert here other colorful examples)?

The experts claim a loose policy toward regulation and I agree with this, there needs to be stricter policies on regulating international credit. Or maybe we need to redefine how we allocate credit and define the responsible parties. Here in Cuajiniquil, as stated earlier- the epicenter for the current crisis, we have been dealing with the problem of loose credit regulations for years and the impact of long term irresponsibility has had devastating repercussions for the community. I can only accurately analyze the information from the past 6 months, my time with pure, unfiltered access to the source of the credit calamity, but given the chronology of events, as I’m sure many of you are questioning and apportioning culpability, I must apologize because I, your friendly PCV, am liable for the collapse of the international credit system (or that of Cuajiniquil, Costa Rica por lo menos).

I in no way intended to spark a of crisis of such epic proportions but what can you expect when you expose a population to a dynamic change agent, or more accurately stated, release a potent catalyst into an already unstable situation (okay, maybe a little heavy handed). This problem of credit irresponsibility presented itself early on; I noticed during my interviews with community members that there existed no reliable accounting system with which to acknowledged the parties responsible for projects, communal works, and socially productive activities. This, in turn, lent itself to a credit free-for-all that makes the greed on Wall Street seem like the maladroit workings of a child.

The most potent example of the credit endemic involves a student group from the United States, an environmental project, and a few conspicuous smudges in the records of the community. The project, that of the U.S. student group, included the installation of 16 trashcans throughout the community with the goal of promoting better practices in the disposal of waste products. It turned out to be very successful and has continued to see community support, but the credit contagion emerged almost immediately.

The first event surfaced in the form of names, written with magic markers, on some of the trashcans claiming recognition for a community student group with little involvement in the project. A small and although irritable action, it was tolerable for the U.S. students, myself, and the greater population. However, two months later came the coup de grace, the same marker wielding banditos attempted to submit the project to a Regional Environmental Contest, complete with group photos in front of the trashcans, for a prize of $600. This proved too much for a humble, struggling Peace Corps volunteer; I made all the necessary calls, put an end to this attempted credit derivative swap, and effectively tipped the first domino in a series that has yet to come to a halt.

Although there are other small credit miscalculations none, as in the former example, are able to clearly illustrate their long term effect and why we have to fight against these types of actions. It isn't that someone receives acclaim for an action that wasn't theirs; the problem is that we've created an environment that is de-motivating, polarizing, and harmful to a community that needs more unity and less division. The real result of years of credit misappropriation is a divided population that doesn't have the desire to collaborate, unite, or work selflessly for the greater good. This lack of interest doesn't stem from the communal law that glory and prestige will always be usurped but rather from the compounded frustration that generations of seemingly innocuous greed for recognition has produced. I don’t propose that we put an end to the acknowledgement and appreciation of public service, I only ask that we demand more fairness in the system and, hopefully, as a result we come to understand the true nature of public service- the advancement and progress of the community and not that of the individual. Any small advancement that we make towards this goal during my time in the Peace Corps will be empirically more effective and beneficial to the community than any bridge, building, or business.

Monday, October 27, 2008

An Edifice Complex

The Peace Corps is an adventure, a chance to learn the idiosyncrasies of a unique and beautiful culture, and, of course, a chance to share your own values and traditions with a community of people. It offers challenges of momentous proportions and causes those who choose this path to reconsider their aspirations, way of life, and the promise of North American Dreams. But above all, it gives the opportunity to leave a lasting impact on a small pocket of the world, and for me this impact has taken the form of infrastructure.

My edifice complex began early in my service; I thought “What better way to be remembered by the people of Cuajiniquil than with a solid structure with a wide base”. My quest to construct was insatiable and nothing was going to stop me. I raced through ideas, considering statues in my likeness or a small restaurant with a breakfast special named “El Robertazo”, but ultimately it was a community directed effort that won out- I think the Peace Corps will be happy with this.

We are now in the final stages of a project proposal for a “Centro de Información Turística”, the idea is threefold: A central location that will offer all the Tourism Services available in Cuajiniquil in a complete packet or offer (fishing, scuba diving, horses, etc.), the second element is a Centro de Inteligencia or a computer lab, and finally a professional office for the A.D.I. and other organized groups in the community. The project will help to ameliorate some of the problems faced by the community; e.g. working toward job creation, modern educational initiatives, and organizational development.

Outside of this I’ve contracted with the local Catholic Church to help with the construction of a Salón Multiuso. The aim is to provide an area for the youth of the community to organize and a space for community fundraising events. With social problems proliferating, mainly drug abuse and alcoholism, and the Salón Comunal currently being used as a High School; this project works to bridge a widening gap. Considering that my first effort failed to raise me to saintly status, the Catholic Church offered the chance for resurrection. How could I get the community to worship me? …a Church Project, genius. Again, I´ve seen my chances dashed by the enthusiastic participation of a few dedicated community members. My concession to the powers that be was obviously predestined but working for the salvation of the youth of Cuajiniquil (perhaps that was a little heavy handed) is enough for a humble Peace Corps volunteer.

All joking aside, I feel that after 5 months of service I’m starting to feel a little momentum in my work and an interest on the side of the community. It’s difficult to explain the role of Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) with only a handful of Spanish but my community is beginning to understand my role and function through these actions. I don’t think that my edifice complex will subside (especially with talks of bridges, bleachers, and bakeries for the coming year) but my need to be vindicated already has. I knew coming into this experience that I would be working for communal goals and the things that I’m learning and experiencing: language, culture, friendships…, are the real rewards of Peace Corps Service. So my focus is changing and I’ve decided to construct friendships, instead of monuments, and learn as much as I can about the people around me; because even though I have infrastructure projects underway my most satisfying Peace Corps moments always start with someone saying, “¿Qué dice Robertazo?...”